World Cup: 5 must-watch games in the round of 16

PHOTOS: AFP/REUTERS

With the group stages over, it is now the business end of the World Cup with 16 teams remaining. The departure of defending champions Germany has opened the door for a new world champion in Russia.

The knockout format from this point means there are no second chances for anyone. It is win or go home. With eight matches over the next four days, The Straits Times picks out five of the most exciting round of 16 clashes.

Saturday (June 30)

France v Argentina, Kazan Arena, 10pm (Singapore time)


France's midfielder Paul Pogba (left) vies for the ball with Peru's midfielder Yoshimar Yotun during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group C football match between France and Peru, on June 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

This is the first of the knockout games and pits two traditional giants. Les Bleus easily topped their group without really getting out of first gear but will need to improve against the South Americans, who despite their problems still possess Lionel Messi and could spring a surprise.

Argentina had Messi to thank for squeezing out of Group D - he scored a sublime opener in their dramatic 2-1 win over Nigeria - but the two-time world champions have looked largely disjointed and insipid so far with a leaky defence given little protection by Javier Mascherano.

France have never beaten Argentina in two attempts at the World Cup with La Albiceleste coming out 2-1 winners over the Europeans in their last Cup meeting at the 1978 World Cup group stage. Argentina would eventually go on to lift the trophy that year before adding their second world title in 1986.

Their last encounter ended in a 2-0 win for Argentina in a 2009 friendly in Marseille.

Despite the wealth of talent at Didier Deschamps' disposal,which includes Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, France have yet to impress with any attacking flair in this tournament. But the 1998 world champions also started Euro 2016 sluggishly before raising their levels in the knockout rounds and reached the final, where they lost to Portugal in extra-time.

Sunday (July 1)

Spain v Russia, Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, 10pm


Spain's forward Diego Costa celebrates his goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and Spain at the Kazan Arena, on June 20, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Despite their wobbles in the group stage, Spain will start as clear favourites. The 2010 world champions have the pedigree and talent to pose problems for the Russians, who were taken apart by Uruguay in their final group match and now face their toughest test.

Russia can probably take some comfort from their 3-3 draw against La Roja last November in a friendly in Saint Petersburg but it will be a huge upset if they manage to advance to the quarter-finals here.

Spain have never lost to the Russian in six matches, and beat them twice (4-1 in group stage, 3-0 in semi-finals) of Euro 2008, which Spain went on to win. It was their last meeting in a competitive tournament.

The host can count on home support and have surprised many critics with their performances, left winger Denis Cheryshev's three goals so far mark him out as a clear threat, but Spain also possess significant arsenal in Diego Costa (three goals as well) and a world-class midfield that features Andres Iniesta, Isco and David Silva.

Monday (July 2)

Brazil v Mexico, Cosmos Arena in Samara, 10pm


Brazil's forward Neymar (left) controls the ball next to Serbia's midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Serbia and Brazil, on June 27, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Both teams come into this game with contrasting morale and momentum. Brazil began the tournament with a disappointing 1-1 draw against the Swiss but have slowly improved with back-to-back 2-0 wins to win Group E.

The Mexicans were seen as a genuine threat after beating Germany 1-0 and then grinding out a 2-1 win over South Korea but their defence completely collapsed in that 3-0 drubbing by Sweden.

No surprises then that Brazil are expected to progress - they have faced Mexico at four previous Cups and have won three and drawn the most recent in 2014 - and will expect Neymar, who is still finding his match sharpness, to provide the edge.

The five-time champions also have the in-form Philippe Coutinho (two goals and one assist so far in Russia) to support their talisman while their defence looks solid with Thiago Silva in command at the back.

Mexico have done well with their strategy of using the counterattack and the trio of Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano will need to click if El Tri have any chance of producing an upset.

Tuesday (July 3)

Belgium v Japan, Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don , 2am


Japan's midfielder Keisuke Honda (left) is congratulated by teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group H football match between Japan and Senegal at the Ekaterinburg Arena, on June 24, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Can Asia pull off another stunning upset in Russia?

South Korea are the pride of the continent after they shocked 2014 world champions Germany 2-0 in their final group game, sending the star-studded European side out of the competition, even if the Taegeuk Warriors were already eliminated themselves.

A victory over Belgium would put Japan's footballers on the same pedestal, although there are long odds on such an upset.

The Samurai Blue scraped through into the last 16, ahead of Senegal, thanks to a better disciplinary record. The two nations had ended the group stage with four points apiece, had an identical goal difference, and drew 2-2 in their match against one another.

Japan also beat Colombia 2-1, in a match the South Americans played with 10 men for almost the entire game following Carlos Sanchez's third-minute red card, and lost 1-0 to Poland.

Belgium, meanwhile, are flying high, after beating England 1-0 in their final group game to finish top of Group G. They had earlier eased past Panama (3-0) and Tunisia (5-2), to end the group stage as one of only three teams - the others are Uruguay and Croatia - with a 100 per cent record in the tournament.

Wednesday (July 4)

Colombia v England,Spartak Stadium in Moscow, 2am


England's Harry Kane celebrates scoring their second goal, on June 24, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS 

Some England fans saw their 1-0 defeat by Belgium in the final group G game as a blessing in disguise: finishing second in the group meant they went into the "easier" half of the knockout brackets, which featured eight teams with only two World Cup titles (Spain in 2010 and England themselves, in 1966) and three final appearances between them.

The other half of the knockout brackets feature four former champions with a combined record of 10 titles from 16 final appearances.

England have impressed with their confident wins over Tunisia and Panama, before a "B" side without stars like tournament top-scorer Harry Kane, were beaten 1-0 by an equally under-strength Belgium.

Before Gareth Southgate's men can dream a place in the final, though, they have to get past Colombia.

The South American side got their tournament off to a nightmare start when midfielder Carlos Sanchez was sent off just three into the first game against Japan, which they lost 2-1. But they bounced back to beat Poland (3-0) and Senegal (1-0) to book their place in the last 16.

England should be wary of the sparkling form of James Rodriguez, who has had a hand in 11 goals in eight World Cup appearances (six goals, five assists). Along with Juan Cuadrado and Falcao, Colombia have enough firepower to trouble and England backline yet to keep a clean sheet in Russia.